Signs Matter For Students’ Health

by on September 16, 2015

Can elementary school cafeterias help students choose healthier lunches? Signs point to yes.

That is, signs with easy to understand graphics can help even beginning readers learn what they should put on their lunch tray. Encouragement from cafeteria workers can nudge students towards taking a complete meal, and eating it.

Unfortunately, poorly thought out signage or confusing messages can have the opposite effect.

Government payment for school meals requires that students must choose at least three of the five parts of a school lunch (protein, grain, fruit, veg and milk), and that at least one choice must be a fruit or vegetable. Ideally, students are prompted by both signage and verbal cues to take all five parts, making a complete meal.

However, in an apparent snafu, some San Francisco elementary school children have been led to think that they can only take three parts of the meal, and some have even believed that they must choose between fruit or vegetable, and not take both.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about one in ten Americans eat enough fruit and vegetables.

Signs that have been posted in SFUSD cafeterias since the start of the school year state “LUNCH: Students must take 3 out of the 5 components; must take 1 fruit or vegetable and at least 2 other items.”


While older children, who already know the lunch drill, understand that the “take 3 out of 5” rule doesn’t preclude taking the whole meal, the youngest students can’t read or understand the sign.

Parents and school staff at several elementary schools across San Francisco have told me that their young students are confused about what they should be putting on their lunch tray, and that the signs are not helpful for those just learning to read. After all, even many 5th graders don’t know what a “component” is. The SFUSD sign uses “component,” “item,” and “food group” interchangeably.

Other school districts use signs that rely more on colorful graphics than words to get the point across.

In Dallas, posters in elementary school cafeterias use bright colors and pictures to instruct students to “select 3 to 5” items, and advise them through photos to choose veggies first, then fruit, and finally the entree and milk. The signs even reminds kids that they can take double portions of veggies if they want.


By putting the veg and fruit at the top of the “take this” list, these posters increase the likelihood that students will choose the full meal. It’s never a challenge to get kids to take the entree, and getting them to choose the milk isn’t much of a trick either, since it is often the only beverage offered.

It’s the fruit and veg that they have to be reminded to take. To accomplish this, Ann Cooper, head of student nutrition for Boulder (CO) Unified School District, had posters created for her cafeterias that could work for any school.

She says:

“One of our most important jobs as school food professionals is to help students choose and eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.  The current USDA guidelines dictate that every reimbursable meal include a 1/2 cup of fruit or a 1/2 cup of vegetable, however that’s the minimum and children should be encouraged and educated toward eating as many serving as they like.

“In Boulder Valley School District we have ‘Endless’ salad bars in all of our schools Pre-K through 12.  We encourage our students to consume a rainbow of colors and flavors and educate them through cafeteria events and collateral materials such as: tastings, Rainbow Days, Harvest of the Month cards and Posters.

“These kinds of educational materials are an important tool in helping children to understand the importance of healthy delicious fruits and vegetables and in getting students not only to take them, but to eat and enjoy them.  Cafeteria educational materials, which can be found on the Lunch Box, are a vital tool in increasing consumption and reducing waste of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Closer to SF, in Novato (CA) Unified School District, nutrition director Miguel Villarreal uses the School Nutrition Network’s Five Star series of posters. He says, “This poster is my favorite because it has so many messages. Not only is it colorful, but it also shows a diversity of kids that can easily determine what and how many foods to select, beginning with fruits and veggies. Most importantly, it encourages kids to select all five color stars to look and feel their best.”



Asked whether these kinds of posters help students eat more fruit and veg, Villarreal told me, “That is hard to quantify, but I’m convinced that signs like this help, because they reinforce daily our efforts to help kids make healthy choices. We know that fruit and veggie consumption has increased over the years in our school district. Signs like this one help us with motivating kids to make the right choices.”

For students just starting school, or any too young to read the signs, it helps to have a cafeteria worker who takes the time to encourage students to select the full meal, not just the minimum three parts needed for government payment.

In Novato Unified, Villarreal told me, “Every day we place a display tray of what their meal should like when students come through the line. We tell our staff to encourage our kids to take all five items.” This combination of visual cues and verbal encouragement helps more kids take and eat everything offered, he reports.

In fact, Novato cafeteria staff are following the kinds of best practices recommended by the Smarter Lunchroom Movement and by the Montana Team Nutrition Program. These best practices include the use of positive cues like advising students “You have five more minutes to fill up your tummies!” rather than negative cues like “Hurry up, you only have five more minutes.”

Taking the whole meal can be encouraged by cafeteria staff reminding students “You can make the entree a whole meal by adding fruit and vegetables,” rather than “You must take a fruit or a vegetable.”

I explained the problem around signage that is happening in SFUSD to Orla O’Keeffe, the executive director of policy and operations, whose areas of oversight include Student Nutrition Services. I provided examples of posters used in other districts and asked if SFUSD might swap out their current confusing sign for something more graphic and colorful that would encourage students to choose a full meal.

She told me, “We’ve secured a grant and selected a firm to design various communication tools to promote school meals.” That means that someday, perhaps later this school year, SFUSD may start displaying more appropriate and attractive signs that actually encourage students to choose a complete healthy meal.

Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, a tireless advocate for excellence in child nutrition, who blogs at School Meals That Rock, has this to say about school cafeteria signage:

“Making it fun has become the norm. I see great signs that are more like restaurant signage, depicting the menu of the day written on a blackboard. It’s about much more than making sure the meal is reimbursable, in fact it is the exact opposite of nagging kids to take their serving of produce.

“The best signs present a menu of delicious opportunities, like going to your favorite local restaurant and seeing what the specials are today. That way, children are encouraged to be adventurous in making food choices and have the opportunity to enjoy new foods in addition to their familiar favorites.”

As part of her work supporting healthy child nutrition, Hayes travels the country visiting school cafeterias. She usually finds colorful, helpful signage and documents it to inspire others.

I showed Hayes the SFUSD sign and she responded, “SFUSD should be a little embarrassed.”

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

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